Stephen Chandler: Hope in the Midst of Crisis—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Stephen Chandler discusses setting the vision for Destiny Church, how the church encourages people to take bold steps in faith, and the spiritual journey God used to prepare him to be senior pastor of the church.

You took over as senior pastor at the age of 23. How difficult was it, being so young?

For most churches, the median age of the congregation is five years older and five years younger than the senior pastor. So, in those first years of the church when I was 24 to 25, you’d expect to see the median age of our church to be 20 to 30. We saw a major influx of college students and actually started a bus ministry where we would bus college students in from five universities in the area. It gave our church a shot of energy and momentum, but not a lot of money. We grew by 100 people a year the first six years, but it was a revival for us. As a young single guy who had never led at this level, it was stretching every ounce of leadership capacity I had. I was having the time of my life.

What leadership lessons were you learning?

I’ve always been a learner and always been a student. From Day 1, I studied Gateway in Southlake, Texas. And Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands in Alabama, has been my mentor. I obviously watched Elevation in North Carolina. What the fastest-growing churches had in common was top-level leadership around the senior pastor. From Day 1, I understood and learned: You can build something bigger with a great team. So, from the beginning, I had an executive team that we called the core team. These were professionals, attorneys, accountants, nurses who worked 50- to 60-hour jobs and then came and worked for the church 20 hours-plus a week as volunteers. I think that was the key factor to the church growing consistently and then experiencing exponential growth.

Following up on your vision for engaging the kingdom, how important is diversity of people as well as gifts?

Our church was in Baltimore for the first four years, and then we moved to a location 25 minutes south, closer to Washington, in Columbia, Maryland. Later, we also opened a second location in Baltimore County about 25 miles north of Columbia. I’m African American, a pastor of a church that is 50% immigrants. My wife is from Sierra Leone, West Africa. While it is a majority African American church, there are some white folks, some Asians and Hispanics. We’re in one of the most diverse regions in the nation in one of the most diverse counties so there is that level of diversity. There’s a strong number of people from African and Caribbean descent. We look the same, but have drastically different experiences, different backgrounds, different outlooks on life.

Diversity can be a challenge, but when the vision is clear we understand Destiny Church doesn’t exist for the people who are in the room; we exist for those who have not yet encountered Christ. I think every race, every culture has a different perspective of who God is. If you only relate to God from one perspective, you’re going to have a limited experience of who God is. I think a lack of diversity brings a certain lack of intimacy with God.

What kind of impact is your church having on your community?

We have a relationship with the local homeless shelter to provide food and counseling. Once a year, the church does something called Serve Day involving 30 to 40 different outreach projects from cleaning schools, building ramps for the elderly, trimming bushes, making baskets for the hospitalized. That’s a systematic outreach our church does. We are also daily engaged in helping people rebuild their lives. We don’t step in just to avoid an eviction or pay a light bill, we step in to help that person get back on their feet. So, we’ll meet the immediate need but then help them get stability in their finances, find employment, get marriage counseling. We focus on outreach that’s not just designed to survive a crisis but build better lives.

How did the pandemic affect your church?

We had just launched our second location in February of this year, which was about 10 weeks before everything shut down. We were close to 3,000 people on a weekend with 60 to 80 people going through the church’s membership class on a weekly basis. We were getting ready to launch another location in the fall. This year was going to be another year of growth, thriving and figuring out how to breathe through all of this.

The shutdown happened pretty suddenly. Being a part of ARC, we were able to hear what was being talked about on the national level. We went exclusively to online services sometime in March. We just assumed it would be two to three weeks before we’d be back in the physical building. Three-and-a-half months later we are still online, looking to return to physical services soon. But, through this, we just saw our church step up. Our giving and small group participation through Zoom increased exponentially. The entire church just shifted to outreach. There was food delivery on a daily basis for those who could not afford groceries or for the safety of the elderly. The church also provided food for the staff of three hospitals. We are an outreach center where people are constantly emailing the church about a food shortage, job loss or trouble paying the rent. Due to the increase of the church’s giving, we were able to meet virtually every single need that came in.

In the middle of a pandemic, racial protests erupted. As an African American pastor of a diverse church, how do you speak into the issue of racism?

I think it’s helpful to understand the issue in terms of trauma. Picture a 13-year-old girl, slightly overweight, parents divorced with a mom who remarried an alcoholic stepfather. During her teenage years, she suffered violence and abuse and was told that she’s ugly, useless and wished dead. All of us know how that girl is going to turn out when she is 18. It just breaks your heart. It’s why we have ministry. It’s why we try to bring some type of healing to the unfortunate trauma this young lady has experienced.

What I’d tell the white community is to see this girl as a picture of the experience of an entire race of people. I’m not asking white Christians to give Black people everything; I’m not asking them to apologize for atrocities they’ve not personally done. But I am saying have compassion, understanding that you are dealing with a traumatized community. You wouldn’t go up to that girl and say, “You’ve been traumatized and you’re broken goods,” because people have respect, dignity and self-worth. The compassion springs from a recognition of all she has had to endure and from a desire to help her heal.

Are you optimistic of the transformational possibilities of our time in terms of dealing with racism?

I think the possibilities are endless. This is a time in history where the playing field can be level. I think that would be the first time in American history where that has even been a possibility. It is a very uncomfortable season in our country and in the church. I know there’s the temptation to walk away or wait for it to blow over. But every great leader knows that great change doesn’t come from comfort. Change comes from embracing difficult conversations, difficult moments, difficult encounters.

A friend of mine, Pastor Dave Sumrall, said, “I prefer to be unintentionally offensive than intentionally silent.” If the church in America is willing to lean into the awkwardness and discomfort, risk difficult conversations, then there is great hope. If we’re going to come together as a Black church, white church and other different experiences to try to figure out how to become God’s church, we’re going to have to risk saying the wrong thing. We’re going to have to have an open heart, a heart of love not accusation. And we’re going to have to be willing to talk and willing to listen.

How important is the biblical reality of repentance?

In the contemporary American church, there’s been a lot of vocal repentance. In these last few weeks, you’ve heard a lot of large white churches come out with statements of “This is unacceptable” or “We’ve been blind to this” or “We repent for ignoring it,” and that leads us into conversation. Repentance is not just words; it’s a change of direction. So, what I want to see is not just talk, but what actions are we going to take to turn the tide.

How do you help the people in your church heal?

I think the church is the hope of the world. The church is the only organization on planet Earth equipped to minister to both soul and flesh. Unless there is a healing in the soul, there will continue to be self-destructive tendencies. That’s what’s so difficult. I have sympathy for white people looking at this. Yes, Black lives matter, but Black people are killing each other. Many of our families are broken.

I take you back to that 18-year-old girl who’s been traumatized the last six years of her life. Nobody is shocked if she’s an alcoholic or cutting herself or smoking weed or selling her body because she’s doing whatever she can do to cope with the trauma. Only the church is equipped to bring healing to the heart so that trauma no longer affects the future. So, part of the entire heartbeat of Destiny Church is not just building Sunday Christians, but building people’s lives. First, bringing healing to the heart, the psyche, the paranoias, and then helping us figure out how trauma has corrupted our finances, marriage, parenting and education. Yes, you need to know God’s Word; you need to be filled with the Holy Spirit; but you also need to get out of debt, and be able to parent your children toward their destiny, not just toward survival.

I think it really is the job of our church to help rebuild the lives of the African American community. When the work has been done in the heart, then you can go to whatever university you want and get a degree and excel. That’s when all those different factors can be more effective.

Could the present despair create unique opportunities for the gospel?

Absolutely. I think the verse I’ve been quoting every Sunday is from Hebrews 12: “Everything that can be shaken will be shaken, but God has given us a kingdom that is unshakable.” You can’t rely on money for salvation; you can’t rely on community, networks or education. All those things can be shaken and have been shaken in this moment, and I think it leaves people looking for hope in a way they never have before. Throughout history, crisis has always preceded revival, because it’s in the midst of crisis people become aware of their need. Therein lies the unshakable hope that only Christ can bring.

Columbia, Maryland
Founded: 2011
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 2
Attendance: 2,726
Growth: +1,261 (86%)
Fastest-Growing: 1

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